The famed folktronica duo on David Mamet, Philip Glass, and the lost art of picking blueberries.
Ever since their debut album, Thought for Food, came out in 2002, The Books have making impossible-to-characterize yet oddly compelling records. Guitarist and vocalist Nick Zammuto and cellist Paul de Jong splice together tidbits of classical music, sound bites from popular movies, and everything in between. It’s a near-perfect mix of high- and low-brow — in 2004 they were commissioned by the French Cultural Ministry, not to perform a concert, but to make music for the building’s elevator. We sat down with The Books to discuss airline movies, gratuitous nudity, and unexpected musical discoveries.
Make-Believe Town, “It’s Necessary for The Scene,” David Mamet
Paul: On our last tour, I picked up a copy of this movie, Glengarry Glen Ross, in a thrift store looking for sampling material. A few weeks ago, I pulled it out of the box for the first time and watched it. After, I went back to the original screenplay by David Mamet, remembering that I first read it before I saw the movie, and I understood nothing. Literally nothing. It’s a baffling play. There’s so much jargon in it; for somebody who didn’t grow up in the United States, it’s complete gibberish. But, I really admire it, so I started reading more David Mamet and quickly moved to his essays, which really blew me away. There’s a collection of essays called Make-Believe Town. They’re all good, but there’s a particular essay called “It’s Necessary for the Scene.” It’s a six-page rant about nudity and sex scenes in movies. I still get really irritated about sex scenes in movies — not so long ago, my mother was visiting from The Netherlands and I bought Amadeus. My mother loves classical music and I thought it would be a great movie for us to watch. I bought the director’s cut, but I didn’t realize that what distinguishes the director’s cut is just one scene where Mozart's wife shows her breasts. And it has nothing to do with anything; it’s just complete gratuitous pornography.
Nick: Right now, we’re in the thick of blueberry season. Do you know what a blueberry rake is? It's for harvesting wild blueberries, and we’re lucky to have a pretty nice patch at my house in upstate Vermont. If you did it by hand, it would take forever, so you just run this rake through the entire plant, and the blueberries fall into the scoop, but you’re bound to get leaves and unripe berries and spiders and stuff like that. Anyway, we have to spend long periods of time later, indoors, sorting out the junk, and so we tend to watch television. I probably don’t need to plug Mad Men, because it’s already really popular, but we love it; it’s fantastic. Especially the last episode of this last year, which kind of made up for all the not-so interesting episodes that came before it. We watch a lot of documentaries as well, and the one that I always go back to is the movie Helvetica. It’s actually a documentary about the font. That really changed the way that I looked at a lot of things, especially signage. Why do people choose certain fonts? It’s very easy to ignore that element of things, but also interesting.
Paul: For the last two years or so we’ve been flying a lot while on tour, and the entertainment systems on airplanes have vastly improved — to the point where if you fly to Australia you can watch ten movies. I’m pretty omnivorous. I’m as interested in in-your-head art movies as I am in really spectacular special effects. The other day I saw 2012 — one of those big Armageddon movies. I just needed something to dumb my mind down to a complete subterranean level. The thing I noticed is that the most elaborate special effects are in the first half the picture. Then later in the movie they get a lot worse, but once you’ve reconciled yourself to the visual language of the special effects, they can get away a lot of watered-down stuff. Your mind makes up for it. They give the big punch in the beginning, and then they just ride it out.
Glass: A Portrait of Philip in Twelve Parts
Nick: I recently watched a documentary about Philip Glass. He is a really interesting guy. The way that he lived his life — he had this glitzy Hollywood New York City lifestyle, and then he’s got a retreat way up in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia. I can’t compare myself to Philip Glass, but he has studied Eastern religions quite a bit, and so have I, and I feel like it subconsciously plays a role. To see those same forces sort of play themselves out in his work is really interesting. He lives in what looks almost exactly like my house. It’s made entirely of rough-cut pine, and it’s interesting — that’s where he finds refuge. I don’t know if he spends much time picking blueberries, but…
Piano Quartet in C Minor, Opus 60, Johannes Brahms
Paul: The other day, I was watching Faithless by Liv Ullmann. She used to be one of Ingmar Bergman’s main actresses. It’s really kind of a long movie about a relationship gone awry, and it’s quite surprising — there’s one fragment of a piece of music in it. A soon as I heard it, it was like coming home, and yet I had never heard it before. I was immediately obsessed by it. I knew it was by Brahms — that’s where I come from, the world of classical music — but I’d never heard it before. I quickly tracked it down. It's a piano quartet in C Minor, Opus 60. It’s the third movement, and it has a gorgeous cello solo in it. And there’s just this enormous satisfaction to still find music that I haven’t heard yet, that can provide these moments that — even after a long day of sample cutting and having your ears filled all the time — can bring this welcome relief.
Nick: I’ve been trying to teach myself how to sing in the last few years. I never really sang in my life until The Books started making records. There’s been a pretty steep learning curve. But it really relaxes me; it kind of puts me in the zone, so to speak. I just have a very particular taste in vocalists. Gillian Welch is someone I always go back to. Her voice is so rich, and at the same time, so plain and unadorned. It’s kind of like the ancient, universal voice.